Socially Engaged – Mariama Attah

Figure 1: Phil Hill (April, 2021) Garden Incinerator in my Brothers garden
Figure 2: Phil Hill (April, 2021) Garden incinerator in my parents garden

I have reached a point in my project where I really need to consider the way that my photographs are representing the people in the images. There are some areas that have come up, that I have been drawn to in fact. For example, there are aspects to the beliefs that my mother holds, which really feed into the unreliable narrator idea and the way that mis-information proliferates. For example, upon my last visit home, I have noticed more objects around my parents home, such as the garden incinerator’s that both my parents and my brother have (Fig 1 & 2). They use these to burn anything that has an identifying address on instead of garden waste, which is born from some of the conspiracy theories that my mother is particularly interested in. I have not really considered this as part of the unreliable narrator project before however, my family are very much following a great deal of the mis-information and false narratives that exist on the internet, especially around the pandemic and attempts to vaccinate. There are new subtle hints towards this attitude to Covid, which can be seen in the portrait of my brother’s wife and her ‘mask exempt’ badge (Fig: 3).

Figure 3: Phil Hill (April, 2021) Sharon [not yet edited]

I have avoided this part of my family’s character up to now, but feel that it has become quite an important part to potentially include, owing to the nature of the subjects that I am exploring. My initial feelings are that I can potentially leave these aspects in a future sequence with little to no explanation as it drives the unreliable narrator theme through the work, leaving readers to discover these elements in the work. This is my family however, and it is not my intention to draw negative reaction to any of the people included in the work. This is important to me. How do I include them whilst remaining empathetic and respectful for the individual? I don’t believe that anyone who believes that Covid is a conspiracy is coming from a bad place and I also feel that it is actually important to analyse the reasons why they believe it in an open discussion that does not resort to partisan stone throwing. Neuroscientist, Hannah Critchlow notes that our beliefs are constructed to help us understand the world around us, we create the rules in which we see the world operate (2021). Critchlow’s suggestion is that as a way of trying to understand something that is too large to comprehend, such as the make up of the universe or the way that a global pandemic has spread, it is completely natural to gravitate toward religion and other beliefs.  A recent study on the way that ideas and information spreads through the internet found that lies spread much faster than truth, noting “false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it” (Vosoughi, et al., 2018). The challenge is in the way that others might look at and potentially mock those who believe in such theories.

Socially Engaged practice

Collaborative practice might be a way of bridging this. Mariama Attah made a really valuable keynote lecture during adapt on this way of working (2021). Her interest is in overlooked visual culture, which I believe my project falls into. Her discussion centered around the ways that we can share power as photographers and having a collective voice. I need to do more. I have been very focused on understand a narrative from my own perspective and collection images without necessarily talking through the process with my family, apart from the correspondence that I have sent out to my grandmother. I think the lack of response from her has created a certain apprehension in talking to my parents at any length about the project. This is something that I must challenge as it potentially could lead to a problematic end result that does not include those I am photographing.

Attah noted elements of a socially engaged practice (2021):

  • Collaboration
  • Conversation
  • Empathy
  • Acting as an Ally
  • Questioning photography’s history
  • Privilege and Power
  • Advocacy

I now need to look at some of these elements much more closely and investigate whether I am using them faithfully, for example:


I identified this early in in the project but have yet to explore it fully. I have conducted two interviews with distant uncles and also spoken to a cousin who I haven’t seen in 10 years. I must start the process with my mother. I think that I have found this to be too close for me to get past so far, as Marianne Hirsh also noted “Perhaps it is the familial look itself that makes it difficult to read this picture which will not reveal any identifiable truth” (1997, p. 104) where the same might be true of any familial exchange I may have with close family members. It remains important to continue working through this the conversations I have with more and more of my family will enable a more empathetic approach, another one of Attah’s socially engaged elements


Now that I have come across more and more of the extreme views held by members of my family, it creates the question of how much advocacy these ideas should be allowed. The have every right to believe them. They are also an interesting evolution in the idea of the unreliable narrator – but that doesn’t mean that I should include for either of these reasons. It will be important to consider the reaction of others towards them should I choose to include the images, which will be an important part of the conversation, above.

Comparing to others:

Figure 4: Anthony Luvera (2014) ASSISTED SELF-PORTRAIT OF JOE MURRAY

How is my approach comparing to others? Anthony Luvera is a photographer that I have looked at previously during the MA, his approach to community and socially engaged projects is possibly one of the best examples of how this approach can foster a faithful representation of all involved (Fig: 4). His interest in the ethics of photography is something that I keep returning to, as he states “One of the things about any kind of social practice, whether it be within the expanded field of photographic practice, or another art form such as applied theatre, is a tension between the process of working with participants and the products that are created and then circulated to audiences” (Luvera in Homer, 2019) echoing the thoughts of Attah, when she noted “Photography’s history has been about classifying people & object in orders of worth and value” (2021). A key takeaway from my last supervisor meeting with Wendy was an idea of belief, which I feel is a way of creating a respectful approach to the work. Ultimately, I must move forward by conversing with the people in my project to discuss this idea of belief and how best they wish that belief to be represented.


Attah, M., 2021. Adapt 21: Responding Through Curating. Falmouth: Falmouth Flexible.

Critchlow, H., 2021. The Science of Fate. 1 ed. London: Hodder Paperbacks.

Hirsch, M., 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. 2012 Reissue ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Luvera, A., 2019. Anthony Luvera – interview: ‘Photography is a way of telling stories about the world’ [Interview] (15 August 2019).

Vosoughi, S., Roy, D. & Aral, S., 2018. The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), pp. 1146-1151.

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